Early in June this year, news began to pour in from the world over about a spate of incidents involving the rescue of elephants in Bangladesh who were trying to migrate from Myanmar.
Such a crossing for a land animal like the elephant was unprecedented. But this anomaly was not some random, unexplainable behaviour.
Since the Rohingya influx of 2017, the subsequent and sudden construction of refugee camps had blocked a key elephant corridor, the same passage they had used for years to migrate from one country to another.
With no other option left, the elephants had resorted to taking the waterways. The crossing, which had never been recorded before, also made the rescue missions difficult.
Of the two elephants rescued, one had almost been carried out into the deep sea. Fishermen, armed with only ropes, had dragged one of the gargantuan animals back to shore.
In narratives everywhere, the blame was, at least by association, put on the Rohingyas and their camps.
The camps made for Rohingyas, in a place not of their choosing at all, had indeed affected the elephant population.
But of the 268 elephants in the country, according to the last estimate by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), only 38 were located around the said camps in Cox's Bazar and Teknaf.
The rest were spread around the Chittagong Chittagong Hill Tracts, and Cox's Bazaar, where elephants are facing dual challenges of habitat degradation and encroachment in the elephant corridor areas- the land bridge connecting the elephant habitats.
For all the attention the Rohingyas got, the fact the refugee camps were still only blocking that one out of 12 corridors.
The corridors were what elephants used to traverse from one location to another. For years, experts have repeatedly said that elephants migrate using one particular pattern. They use the same route each time, regardless of any changes.
In terms of the visitors from Myanmar, this narrative is also problematic. Elephants migrate when they see fit, and can go long distances. But, at the same time, they do not follow man made borders or boundaries.
An extraordinary animal
Dr MA Aziz, a professor at the zoology department of Jahangirnagar University, has been involved with large mammals for years.
When asked about elephants, he doesn't pause a second before declaring, "The elephant is an extraordinary animal."
"The elephant is unlike most animals. It is highly emotional and has great memories. To save such an extraordinary animal, extraordinary steps need to be taken," he said.
So what made the elephant so special?
"The elephant influences the ecosystem. They are considered ecosystem engineers," he said.
"They eat around 200kgs every day and defecate 100kgs. Their dung is a rich source of food for numerous insects. They also help trees germinate in a way that humans cannot."
When elephants are large in numbers, this germination helps the forest to expand.
"It is a flagship species. If you make the elephant the icon (of conservation) then numerous other animals will be saved," Dr Aziz said.
Speaking of measures to save animals, Dr Aziz highlighted the need to find modern solutions to saving the giants.
"We need long-term strategies and sustained efforts. We have wildlife centres but those won't work if we don't develop them. We can also think of forming an elephant cell comprising scientists, researchers and others," he said.
He also called to strengthen capacities of those involved with conservation.
Dr Aziz, however, also mentioned the need for a multi-agency approach.
A team effort reimagined
IUCN's Country Representative Raquibul Amin, in conversation with The Business Standard, also emphasised the need for a multi-agency approach.
"We need multi-stakeholder participation to protect the elephant corridors," he said.
He said the forest department alone could not save elephants, as not all forest areas were under their purview.
Raquibul, in an impassioned interview, also mentioned that both the local context and connectivity in the larger landscape need to be understood if we want to save the elephants.
He mentioned railways snaking through forests. "We, along with the Asian Development Bank, suggested having either underpasses or overpasses for elephants who come across these rail lines," he said, adding this too was not paid heed to.
Elephants die when crossing rail tracks as humans do and this was something that Bangladesh Railways could also look into.
This, however, also just a few of the places which elephants used as corridors. There were also crossings – paths elephants used to go from one destination to another.
A creature of habit, elephants rarely change course. Once a destination is fixed, they follow a similar trajectory.
Knowing this trajectory could be the only way to save the creatures.
Dr Aziz also opined the same. "Linear infrastructure, such as roads and railways, should have overpasses and underpasses."
He said all 12 elephant corridors and six protected areas had been touched by these rail lines.
If history was a testament
Between 1997-2002, 162 persons were killed and more than 600 others injured, while the humans retaliated by killing 22 elephants.
Last year, 14 elephants were killed.
At the same time, elephant-human conflict has increased in CHT. The forest department in Lama has already paid out lakhs to families affected by elephants in terms of death, injury and destruction of property.
In a 2003 report, 196 to 227 wild elephants were said to be present in Chittagong South and North, Chittagong Hill Tracts South and North, Cox's Bazar and Lama, Bandarban Pulpwood forest division.
In addition, there are 83 to 100 non-resident or migratory elephants in the northeastern hilly region of Mymensingh and Sherpur close to Indian border.
In 2015, that number stood at 267. For a 12-year period, that increase is barely notable.
But, what must be taken into account is the rapid rate of deforestation, coupled with development which has led to an almost stagnating increase in elephant population.
As for the 14 elephant deaths last year, some died in mysterious circumstances, hinting at a new form of war against the mammals.
"Gunshot wounds and killing are on the rise. This is a new phenomenon and security agencies should investigate the source of weapons." Raquibul said.
This was, indeed, an important question. How did the common place gain such an access to arms? Was this another example of the failure of law enforcement agencies, which was magnified given the volatility of the incidents' geographic location?
Of tech, coordination and mass extinctions
Raquibul Amin believes that coordination between various state agencies along with use of technology, such as tracking collars and early warning systems can reduce the human-elephant conflict. And help saving the elephants.
So far, no initiative has been taken in this regard, but it is being planned.
Pointing to the elephant response team, in Cox's Bazar and other places, Raquibul said it was a model that could be used and there were myriad others.
The compensation programme in India and the use of technology elsewhere had helped revive elephant populations elsewhere. There is no reason it could not work here, he suggested.
The best laid plans of men and mice, however, do not always end up the way we would want it to. If Bangladesh loses its elephants, its effects would be felt everywhere.
The Anthropocene extinction, an ongoing extinction event of species during the present Holocene epoch (with the more recent time sometimes called Anthropocene) is a result of human activity.
We are living this period and actively contributing to it in various ways.
According to an article by the National Geographic the Earth is currently experiencing a biodiversity crisis and recent estimates suggest that this mass extinction event will wipe off millions of species of plants and animals. Most of these deaths will be down to human activities such as deforestation, hunting, and overfishing.
According to the report, today, "extinctions are occurring hundreds of times faster than they would naturally." Animals which are designated as critically endangered, endangered, or vulnerable could "go extinct in the next century."
This includes our majestic elephants, one of the most sensitive and emotionally-equipped creatures in the wild.
If Bangladesh were to lose its elephants, what would happen to its biodiversity? Surely, a bigger hit would follow.
The argument today then is not to just act. Rather, it is to act right now. Otherwise, we will be stuck reminiscing about the animals we once had and the idea of elephants will be scoffed at like the idea of our rhinoceros has been.